Pentagon to replace 30 percent of its soldiery with robots

August 5th, 2008 - 3:05 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Aug 5 (IANS) Pentagon is planning to replace by 2020 some 30 percent of its soldiery with robots, which are quietly transiting from the realm of science fiction to the actual battlefield. Robots are increasingly taking over from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, there are unmanned aerial vehicles and ground robots for explosives detection.

A report by Erin Fults quoted Doug Few and Bill Smart of Washington University, who are leading this cutting edge innovation, as saying that machines still need the human touch.

The Pentagon’s robotic force is operated by someone from a remote location, possibly with a joystick and a computer screen. While this may seem like a caveat in plans to add robots to the military, it is actually very important to keep humans involved in the robotic operations.

“When the military says ‘robot’ they mean everything from self-driving trucks up to what you would conventionally think of as a robot. You would more accurately call them autonomous systems rather than robots,” said Smart, assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

Robotics advancements do, however, raise new ethical questions, such as where to place the blame if a robot kills someone. Nevertheless, as the technology progresses, more robots are being sent into battle first.

“It’s a chain of command thing. You don’t want to give autonomy to a weapons delivery system. You want to have a human hit the button,” said Smart. “You don’t want the robot to make the wrong decision. You want to have a human to make all of the important decisions.”

While movies display robots as intelligent beings, Smart and Few aren’t necessarily looking for intelligent decision-making in their robots. Instead, they are working to develop an improved, “intelligent” functioning of the robot.

“It’s oftentimes like the difference between the adverb and noun. You can act intelligently or you can be intelligent. I’m much more interested in the adverb for my robots,” said Few.

Few, Smart’s Ph.D student, is also interested in the delicate relationship between robot and human. He is working to develop a system in which the robot can carry out a task while keeping a human in the loop and with the ability to create new goals for the robot.

To work toward this goal, Few has incorporated what many would simply consider a toy into robotic programming. Using a Wii controller, Few capitalizes on natural human movements to communicate with the robot.

Using something as simple and as common as this video game controller also has added benefits in a military setting. Rather than carting around a heavy laptop and being forced to focus on a joystick and screen, soldiers in battle can stay alert and engaged in their surroundings while performing operations with the robot.

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